ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Depending on who you ask, Colton Herta is the highest-paid driver on the IndyCar grid.
He isn't sure where he falls — Herta has not revealed the payout he received in the shocking four-year extension he signed with Andretti Autosport last October — but he's heard the gossip:
Andretti and sponsor Gainbridge paid Herta, a 22-year-old with seven IndyCar wins and a career-worst 10th-place finish in the standings last season, more than any other driver on the grid to ensure the Californian wouldn't leave the organization.
“I don't know what everybody is making, so I can't answer that,” Herta told The Associated Press. “I've seen everything from I'm the highest paid to the fourth-highest paid. But it doesn't matter — this is a job I would do for free. Even if I was making a hundred grand, I'd be happy.”
Oh, Herta is very happy as he heads into this weekend's IndyCar season opener on the streets of downtown St. Petersburg. Scott McLaughlin of Team Penske is the defending race winner, but Herta in 2021 led all but three of the 100 laps and won from the pole.
That victory was the first of a career-best three wins in 2021 that thrust Herta into the thick of Formula One consideration and ultimately what helped him land his contract extension with Andretti that runs through 2027.
Michael Andretti wants to expand into F1 and bring Herta with him to create a truly American team, but the effort has so far been foiled by a failed purchase of Sauber in 2021 and now pushback on his request that F1 expand the 20-car grid to allow for two Andretti entries.
With no immediate route with Andretti to F1, other teams expressed interest. McLaren tested Herta last year. Red Bull Racing even claimed it had a deal to put Herta in the open seat at AlphaTauri, its junior team, if F1's governing body granted Herta an exception on the Super License required by FIA to compete at motorsports' highest level.
Herta and his manager father, Bryan, never expected FIA to hand the young driver the Super License. More important, Herta did not want to be the example in how little FIA regards IndyCar competition. He doesn't have a Super License because IndyCar is not governed by FIA, which does not recognize the series at the same competitive level as other series it oversees.
“I really didn't want it to happen. I didn't want to be a special case,” Herta told AP. “What's the FIA going to do? Just start handing out waivers on if they think you are good enough to be there? The system needs to be overhauled in how the FIA views IndyCar, but a waiver for me wasn't the solution I wanted for myself."
And that in part is how Herta ended up in this long-term extension with Andretti, which he signed with a full season still remaining on his existing contract and his negotiating window yet to open for other IndyCar teams. If Roger Penske or Chip Ganassi have open seats in 2024, Herta wasn't waiting around to find out.
Michael Andretti and Gainbridge both want Herta in the organization if it's IndyCar or F1.
“Michael’s been so fired up about getting an F1 team for so long, he's got such a fire in him right now, and I don't doubt that he will get there,” Herta said.
For now, Herta will be in St. Pete this weekend and not in Bahrain for F1's opener. Logan Sargeant of Ft. Lauderdale will start that race for Williams, making him the first American driver on the F1 grid since Alexander Rossi in 2015.
Rossi, meanwhile, has left Andretti after seven seasons for a fresh start with McLaren's IndyCar team, and that departure has made Herta the veteran of the storied organization. He turns 23 at the end of this month, but Herta has the most IndyCar experience and tenure at Andretti.
Romain Grosjean, formerly of F1, technically has the most racing experience at 36 years old. But this is just his third season in IndyCar and second with Andretti. Devlin DeFrancesco is entering his second season and Kyle Kirkwood is also in his second IndyCar season, but first with Andretti.
“It's crazy, you know? It's a unique situation and the role — he was lucky when he arrived to have teammates like Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchliffe and Rossi — and was able to rely on good, experienced teammates,” said Bryan Herta, who is his son's strategist and agent.
“That was all very valuable, but now he has to be the leader and that's interesting. I think it's what part of what appealed to him, he gets to take that step into that role and take the mantle and lead the team. It's a lot, no matter who you are, and he is only 22. I think there's going to be a lot of expectations on him.”
Herta said he's ready for the challenge. Andretti hasn't won the championship since 2012 with Hunter-Reay or the Indianapolis 500 since back-to-back wins in 2016 and 2017, with Rossi and Takuma Sato.
That long drought was a motivator to Herta, as was his desire to do enough in IndyCar to earn a Super License within FIA regulations.
“I need to win an IndyCar championship. That will get me a license,” he said.
His father said he never bothered to test free agency because he believes in what he can do with Andretti.
“He hasn't won a championship with an Andretti yet, he wasn't won a 500 yet,” Bryan Herta said. “You stay with a team if you believe those things are possible. He thinks those things are possible where he is now.”
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